Answering borrowed questions (about writing)

I’m knee-deep in thesis-land at the moment, which explains fewer posts of late. However I had some time for this. 

The other day I was inspired by Anna Spargo-Ryan’s blog and her Q and A about writing. She has a way with words. But the questions she answered got me thinking. So it meant I had to completely borrow (borrowing is a tribute-y thing) the same questions she answered. They’re not the questions I would ask me, which is why I thought it was worthwhile trying to answer them in my own way…thanks Anna:)



After about 10 years of writing short stories and other stuff now is season of my novella. It’s the creative part of a creative writing thesis I started last year, but I have been thinking about for a while. It’s about a person discovering upon her father’s death that her grandmother was an archaeologist who travelled the world and then settled down to pursue a monomania. So it’s about digging up the past, and death, secrets, history and landscape. All the usual suspects.


It differs because I’m writing it! This novella is literary-historical fiction, but not too post-modern. Mainly I hope the subject matter for this project is a bit ‘little, yellow, different’, to quote um, Wayne’s World. But not so different that I alienate readers. There is a balance when telling a story about a historical person few people have heard of. This aint Wolf Hall, so I need to introduce the character, but not make the story so detail-heavy the plot is bogged down by stuff the reader doesn’t need to know, just because I did the research. And unlike Hilary Mantel I have a strict word limit so scene-setting must be to the point.

Any-who, beyond that I believe the main way every writer distinguishes themselves is through voice. Language is like a palette for a visual artist. There are particular colours and patterns I am drawn to, and ideas I want to explore. Except words are the colours and phrases and themes are the patterns. I’m pretty excited about my particular idea, because it was in part inspired by two real people who were ignored for a long time until recently, so I think it’s on the verge of a zeitgeist (I said zeitgeist, sorry, I really didn’t mean it). As far as I know few people have set novels/stories where mine is set so there is that.


I thought I could maybe write. So I did a TAFE course that included short story writing. Turns out I love short story writing, which I should have remembered since I loved writing them since I was in grade four, when I wrote my first story. Anyway…as everyone says writing short stories doesn’t pay bills but they mostly fit my ability to concentrate, my available time and my need for a sense of accomplishment at actually finishing something. So many times I’ve started novels and just got bogged down or distracted. Getting a story done is a confidence booster, getting a story published even more so. However, it doesn’t mean I’m a prolific writer – some short stories take a while to find their shape and longer again to find publication. As for themes I’m interested in the same things I’ve always been interested in – what if questions, history, mythology, death, hidden things, landscape, language, arcane stuff, building up a scene, but plots and events or triggers percolate for ages. I listen to people, go to the museum, read, dabble in social media, watch the news and out of all that and my own personal experiences something bubbles up. Often it changes. The novella I’m writing has been planned for years, but it’s turning out quite differently to how I imagined. One character who wasn’t really meant to be in the story at all has taken over and the character who was going to be the main focus is more of a background figure. I also raided a novel I started for the much of the setting because it needed a home and I needed a familiar landscape to ground it. Once I had that place I could riff on contrasts and similarities with other locations the story is set.  

No, my novella is not about a crusading medieval cat-knight.

No, my novella is not about a crusading medieval cat-knight. But don’t tempt me.


Not convinced it does really work. But it goes something like: have idea or nice phrase. Write it down. Email it to myself. Or scribble it in my notebook.  Sometime I will develop a paragraph or two when I’m at the noodle place waiting for dinner, or during a break at work. I write in the afternoons and evenings as I get home from work before the rush hour. If I am planning a story I throw everything I can at the page and while that sorts itself out, read for background – if it’s a tiny story I may only read a reference book or check online. This novella is different though because it is longer and because it is part of a thesis. So it’s a story in itself but also a response to some research questions I had. I haven’t written a story in this way before. As part of a thesis there is the exegesis where I defend what I’ve done, it has been a lot of reading – everything from books of letters by explorers to translations of ancient poetry.

Mostly I’m at the laptop in the study at home. I’ll write, work with it, write some more, go away, think about it, edit and write some more. Drafting is constant. For this story I set up a structure first and divided up all the writing into little chapters and then decided who said what and when and where. This planning is a bit of a departure, usually I don’t always know in advance what will happen, but in this case the last little chapterlet was the second thing I wrote after the introduction, which is now not the introduction. It both helps and hinders that since I’m referencing some real stuff as plot markers. Currently I’m working through my supervisor’s edits and questions, which have been very helpful, as have the deadlines because they keep the momentum up. 

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Black Swan of Trespass

The robber of dead men’s dreams

There is a famous Australian literary hoax, called the Ern Malley affair. Two poets invented the Melbourne poet, you guessed it, Ern Malley to dupe literary journal editor Max Harris. It was all about modernism. This is some of Ern’s work, from Durer: Innsbruck, 1495:

I had often cowled in the slumbrous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters –
Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Art is not easy

And you know, it’s pretty good.  You can’t fake poetry. Sure you can fake an identity as McAuley and the other one did, but their combined talent. No. Although no one much remembers their other stuff do they?

The issue of Angry Penguins that resulted in all the fuss

The issue of Angry Penguins that resulted in all the fuss

But all this got me to thinking about all the angst and anger this hoax caused.  And to thinking about trust, cynicism and pretension and posturing. Do we trust any more?

Of late, although where of I know not, sincerity has become uncool. It’s like everyone feels like they’ve been duped once too often by a couple of poets. Now angry cynics online haunt street corners sneering. But they’re sneering at everything indiscriminately: from a kid’s letter to the CSIRO, to mining companies, governments, planes, vaccinations, viral photos of parents doing parenting things, to efforts to stop whaling or shark culls. Nothing is free from attack and many a thing is attacked for the perception that it comes from the political Left or Right. 

It wasn’t always like this was it? Once upon a time poetry was published in good faith that the poet existed. But now?

The point of education is to learn how to think, how to assess evidence, and how to debate points of view. At university it’s not called defending a thesis for nothing. But somehow, the academic effort to assess evidence has been translated in the wider society to a willingness to suspend belief in everything. The first classes I enrolled in taught me logic, and how to make arguments, and see the flaws in the arguments of others. Some take this as mistrust in the motives and truthfulness of everything.

That’s not the case.

I’m not blind to the fact there are liars and con artists in the world. The harder people work to sell me something the more I question the motivation. But I question. Questions are harder than jeering, even when an unexamined life is not worth living, because I wait for an answer. Jeerers don’t care about answers.

The mind repeats

At some point in the last 20 years all information became misinformation. Advice is a conspiracy to get you to spend money or keep you sick or be signed up. Conspiracies are mostly psychological tools of distraction, like how I imagine people worry about chem trails so as to not have to consider giving up a car. Feeling powerless and hard done by, by massive corporations and/or governments excuses you from examining how your own habits may contribute to the smog of the world doesn’t it?

In the end if you see that the poetry is good, enjoy it for the good poetry it is. Maybe it doesn’t matter who the author was or what the motivation for it was. Similarly if you analyse something and see the lie in it, call it out, but measure the hurt you may cause first.

First, do no harm, the doctors once said.

Shrunk to an interloper

I don’t know. Maybe we’re all lost souls crying out in our own personal noche oscuras, railing at things we don’t understand, can’t influence, or don’t exist because it is easier than to accept some kind of individual responsibility for things we might be able to change a little bit. We wouldn’t want to do something different would we, like appreciate a different kind of poetry? Imagine if everyone changes a little bit?

The vision of others

Finally, I try to remember that offence is always personal and mostly meaningless in the wider scheme of things. It might be a famous literary hoax but I can’t feel the offence Max Harris felt as I read the poems, rather I feel for Harris. But me expressing offence at something does little except stoke the fire of my own outraged ego. And I say this knowing next time I’m outraged by some event or political shenanigans.

Yet I say:

Be the poem, not the cynical poets of the world.

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Lessons from ten-ish years of short story writing

I’ve been writing a while now and studied courses and read a few ‘how to’ books. They’re all helpful in their way. My advice is take advice and don’t take advice. Not everything I’ve been told works for me and I’m ok with that. So if some of this is too obvious you can ignore it, and if none of this works for you, I’m ok with that too, ok?

  • Write. 
  • Read short stories. Read different genres and from authors and places and times you’ve never heard of. I recommend Jorge Luis Borges, John Holton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carmel Bird, Ambrose Bierce, Tim Winton, DH Lawrence and Flannery O’Connor among a gazillion others.
  • The shorter the worker the keener the focus is on how it is written. So like never before spelling, grammar and punctuation matter. There could have as little as 10 words or as many as 4000 to grab onto and hold someone’s attention, and mistakes are distracting.
  • Make the story fit the size. Don’t have a cast of thousands, or a story that crosses continents or many time periods when there are only 500 words to do it in, it’s too difficult and rarely convincing. A short story is a moment, a special slice of something, or an episode in the life of, or an event, yet always complete in itself.
  • Anecdotes are not stories. Real life rarely makes it as story material, because life is just one damned thing after another. A story should have some kind of start, end and finish, with a nice arc or revelation to give it meaning or value, or  spark.
  • Work on the ending. The ‘it was all a dream’ ending should be banished to the sixth circle of Dante’s inferno, unless you make it freaking A M A Z I N G.
  • Almost always use said or says rather than stuff like he ‘exclaimed proudly’ or she ‘enunciated snidely’ – we should understand tone and attitude from the context and the actual words said, because there should be no wasted words in a short story.
  • Thusly, my next bit of advice: give spoken words context:

‘You’re always so right,’ said Evie, before slamming the door in his face. Brian heard her turn the key in the lock and something inside him turned. He pounded the door. ‘No lock’ll stop me, Evie.’

Not my best effort but the attitude and emotions of Evie and Brian are conveyed by their actions rather than me interpreting how their words are said.

  • Write how people talk. But not too much if there are accents to convey. Provide a taste of the accent, don’t overwhelm.
  • Structure is everything. It affects tone, pacing, how the piece looks on the page and how people will read it.
  • Look at sentence construction. Look at the start of each paragraph and if the first word is the same for each change some.
  • Look at point of view and be prepared to change it. Is it first person or third? Should it be from Brian or Evie’s perspective?
  • Break up long sentences if you have a heap of them, or insert a long sentence in if your writing is always punchy.
  • If a phrase or word is repeated make it meaningful. People see meaning in repetitions because they are like word symbols to them and people are always clueing for looks, as Dr Watson once said. If they’re not meaningful, cut them the hell out, as they will distract from what you intend to convey.
Sherlock Holmes: clue-ing for looks like all attentive readers do.

Sherlock Holmes: clueing for looks like all attentive readers do.

  • Be prepared to break rules.
  • Be prepared to defend your artistic decisions to editors; however, recognise when they are right. Editors are not killing your baby but saving it. For your story to thrive, you must let it go. Really, step away and let people read it and have opinions about it.
  • Don’t trust the opinions of the people who are obliged to love everything you do.
  • Nothing is original except you. Work on your voice, rather than your ideas. If you don’t know what voice is in writing then you’re probably still developing yours. And that’s ok.
  • Expect that not everyone will love what you write . Expect that you won’t either if  you go back to something written a while ago. The writing hasn’t changed, you have.
  • Contests are all well and good, but are difficult to win and sometimes costly to enter. Try sending a story to a journal and getting a response from an editor.
  • Rejections are not about you. Sometimes they are not about your work. If they are about your work, edit it. Or send it elsewhere. Maybe the publication was wrong for your story or maybe your story isn’t done yet.
  • Write, finish and walk away. Come back to your story in a week or two, or a month. Read it with fresh eyes. Then edit.
  • I don’t do one or two drafts. As I write I’m in continual draft mode because stories, plots, characters and themes are all fluid until it is published. That is when drafting stops…and sometimes not even then:)
  • Keep a database of titles, submissions, acceptances, costs, dates, etc. I use Sonar 3, a free program.
  • Most publications will not take submissions that  have been self published. Beware vanity publishers.
  • Do have a website, or a social media presence. Don’t make it all about selling or promoting your stories. Social media is great for conversations, while you constantly touting stuff is, basically, boring.
  • Do celebrate your publications or milestones. Don’t be shy. 
  • Enjoy writing short stories as an end in themselves. They don’t have to be mini training wheels for potential novels. Nobody is forcing you to be a novelist. Especially what with the return of the novella and digital media looking for short form stuff to fill online whatsits.
  • Finally, if you’re novelist, that’s cool. For the longest time I was intimidated by long form story telling. I’m having a bit of a crack now, but good on you. But don’t think just cos you can pump out 100,000 words that a short story is a cake walk. Short stories are concentrated and need a deft yet delicate touch to contain their potential for power and also unwieldiness.

Here endeth the lesson.

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Going Back to Baker Street

‘Ere 221B Dragons and Those Who May Spoil Them…mmmkay? 


When I write something there is me writing it #ObviousStatementisObvious. Yet if there is any art to writing, it is about removing the (obvious) evidence of me. But there is another art, or perhaps a balance, to leaving such evidence in the writing. Sometimes it’s to satisfy reader/viewer expectation, and beyond that there are all sorts of motivations for doing so, some are apparent to the writer and others would be sub or supra-conscious.

Sometimes it’s more like a conversation between writer and reader/viewer. The ‘I know you’re looking’ moments, or the ‘I have to let you know that I know you know’ something something here moments. Like when Fury explains the purpose of Coulson’s death in The Avengers. It was like the film writer was saying look everyone, writing with no hands, here is the Call To Action for the Heroes, just like the writing book says. Or when Sherlock makes observations about ‘geeks being worth it if you put the work in because they are  so grateful’ (I may have paraphrased slightly here). That’s not just Sherlock observing, but the authors being cruel about a particular group but also one may posit, about themselves. I think that’s the way of writing. The meanest things are the truth, because the really, really vilest you can be is about yourself. And nobody, not even Sherlock, knows you like yourself. Go Pysch 1o1 on that if you like. 

Themes – Camera Obscura

My writing tends towards what interests me and what captures my attention. In other words what goes into this brain and maybe stays there for a bit, may at some point come out in the writing. This doesn’t make me special because every writer, artist, creative type person is like that.

Writing is also infected by the world we live in, or observe on the news, or…read in the papers. The Sherlock series has used the media, or portrayed the media, but latest series it is about media: media reach and ownership, anonymity, secrets and how they are protected and used, how the media influences government and vice versa.  If you live in the UK or are interested in the media at all you’d need to work pretty hard to avoid such topics. And they’re still with  us.

The obvious clue is the newspaper owning foreigner portrayed as an evil genius, Charles Augustus Magnussen, the CAM who sent a lovely, but in retrospect terrifying, telegram to Mary at the wedding. It’s not overly meta to draw conclusions about who in the media (familiar to anyone in the UK, US or Australia) Magnussen is operating most like. 

Magnussen: Proof? I don’t need proof. I’m in news you moron. I just have to print it. 

But that’s too easy for these writers, because it’s not just a commentary on the evils of unregulated media, or the NSA. Why? Because the Evil Genius Media Baron is the mirror of Sherlock, what with mind palaces and using people. If Sherlock was really a psychopath Magnussen is what he would become if he cared about money, power and making people pay. Yet Sherlock is a detective, rather than a pirate Mycroft mentioned. (Side note interesting relationship between the media and the word piracy nowadays huh).

Sherlock remains a blunt instrument, and again, one of sacrifice, as he sees the one way out for Mary and Watson. This time to keep his friends safe he doesn’t die, or pretend to die, but his Evil Genius Twin needs to. It means if Sherlock ever really turns BAD he too will need to be put down because Magnussen is Sherlock’s Shadow, even more than Moriarty. Moriarty is something like the representation of Sherlock’s fear of the results of boredom + drugs. Through suffering (via Mary) and by the destruction of his Shadow, Sherlock’s issues, at least some of them, like Red Beard, are addressed. We learn about how he became how he is.

All this shadowing and mirroring is reflected (geddit) in the direction. The camera is worth paying attention to, with all the shots through glass, or framed through windows or doors (even as characters are being framed in the plot). There are different angles, close-ups, the use of computers as cameras, or surveillance view angles, ultra clear views or drunken and fuzzy views that heighten the notion of always being observed and of the lack of privacy. Again this is the CAM(era) or rather Magnussen in action. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised about Magnussen’s vault. It is made of light, but is morally ‘dark’. (If white = good and black = bad). His vault is the camera obscura from where everything in his papers is projected and protected.

The direction too has me thinking Sherlock as Hamlet – a flawed hero ready to die or kill for a cause while saving his best friend and always demanding to see proof. But especially thematically and especially the David Tenant version with all the security cameras. In these episodes and that version of the play, Hamlet,  like Sherlock, is ‘th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down’. Yes, quite down due to the machinations of the state and a corrupt media.


So I can see the not only what the writers want me to see of their reflexivity, but also the craft in it. I can see how the end of series three mirrors the end of series two. Where there was Sherlock’s physical fall after Moriarty shoots himself in the head, here is his ‘moral’ fall after, well after what happens with someone else shot in the head, which  again results in a kind of exile from his friends…second verse just like the first.

Indeed the third series ends in the same way as the first series, with Sherlock in the red spot lights of guns, next to Watson, while everything is about to go Moriarty. It also mirrors the end of the first episode – with a shooting to save someone – only with the Sherlock and Watson’s roles reversed and the ‘debt’ paid. This is what makes it beautiful writing, and not at all like life. This is escapism for the attentive viewer or detective fiction as High Art.

People who dismiss such writing have different expectations of TV. They may want (I’m guessing) the kind of TV that just presents stuff happening. ‘Reality’ TV that caters to no expectations. It is entertainment for people who concentrate all day and just need to not in the evening. It is a drug of the masses, and for most of us most of the time it works. I don’t mind some of it myself. I’m not immune to the emotional dramas and plot twists of a good home renovation program. No, what are you thinking putting the glass side table with that rug, can’t you see it doesn’t work next to the dormer window?

It pays to pay attention

However, the TV I most appreciate is the kind where it draws me in, rather than anaesthetises. It’s TV made to be concentrated on, that dares the viewer to want to think like a Sherlock, or emote like one hell of a Martin Freeman as Watson (just phenomenal – Freeman should win awards). It’s a puzzle to solve and the reflexivity invites viewers to second guess not only the characters, but also the writers, who know this is what happens. The game, indeed, is on. Or afoot.

Bit blunt, but a kernel of truthiness.

Bit blunt. But the real point is that these programs and their ilk are meant for a different kind of viewer. It’s not about smart/dumb but attentive/non-attentive.

Case in point. Much of the focus is (rightly) on Sherlock. Yet I like how Watson notices things. Sherlock notices things and it drives the plot and solves the crime. Watson notices things and it’s about feelings. As soon as he sees his chair back in his spot he knows, and this knowledge is confirmed with the perfume. He notices the things that breaks people’s hearts, like he knew Sherlock was breaking Molly’s heart as he deduced her Christmas gift. Sherlock, with no automatic sensitivity, can’t see the human cost of where the deductions lead him, not until it is too late. Too late for Molly, too late for Moriarty and The Woman, and too late for Media Mogul as Super-villian. Our pay off is that we can see the pain Sherlock causes, while watching Watson feel the pain first.


Mycroft seems to be a more naturally without empathy. Sherlock’s psychology, if  you will, seems more a creation of Mycroft’s bullying, artistic sensibility, and sensitivity as a result of exposure to trauma  (Red Beard) bound together. All this plus a curious nature and competitiveness. Mycroft is less curious, perhaps more intelligent and colder, while Sherlock is a bastard, and sometimes deliberately so, but also heroic in his sacrifices. His ability is not just to see what average people filter out, but to read people. Of course Sherlock can read his brother like he reads Watson, but he is also seeing himself in Mycroft. Mycroft is an alter of Sherlock, he can read the details, but feels no drive to.

Sherlock, may not feel (so he says) yet his psychological analysis of Watson is honest and devastating, and also sincere and to the point…that point being getting Watson through the pain of finding out about his wife and then to solve the dilemma. All this as even Sherlock is bleeding internally while using his knowledge of Watson to manipulate him.

As much as Watson is attracted to Sherlock and Mary types, Sherlock is aware of Watson’s utilitarian purpose as well as his other traits. This knowledge changes Sherlock. Sherlock, while remaining the kind of person who can kill without remorse, becomes more aware of his limitations and frailties and more able to be a friend and deliver a best man’s speech. On the other side of this friendship Watson gets the kind of adrenalin rush lifestyle he craves and a best friend and eventually a wife who is herself a mirror to Sherlock. So many mirrors.

Sherlock enjoying being a total and utter Sherlock. His idea of fun is torture. He ho. I did say he develops didn't I?

Sherlock enjoying being a total and utter Sherlock. His idea of fun is torture. Hey ho. I did say he develops didn’t I?

Something About Mary

We knew didn’t we, that something was up with Watson’s fiancée and knowing the types of things that happen to characters in this world, feared for her life? Yet we underestimated the writers. They created Mary to match Sherlock, and perhaps improve upon him. And improve him. And she does. She is pretty much action hero awesome, despicably deceptive and vulnerable all at the same time. As Sherlock points out, she is perfect for John because she like Sherlock, possesses the traits he prefers. And that is also the writers talking to the viewers. Mary Watson, if I may be so bold, is the female actiony-spy-doctor’s assistant/maternal figure we’ve been waiting for. Probably ever since The Long Kiss Goodnight. The point now is to make more use of her traits in the future…please let there be a future.

Rules of Foreshadowment

When filling a story with minor characters writers need to have a point, and make these characters have a point. Otherwise it’s Occam’s Razor for ‘em. Therefore the attentive viewer/reader needs to listen to what minor characters say. Mostly because those random insults and one liner quips usually become the truth. This is called foreshadowing. I submit to you this:

And wait until you realise what you are seeing in the last episode of series three!

And wait until you realise what you are seeing in the last episode of series three!

Anderson, Lestrade and Donovan are crucial as they can stand outside the central relationships and while being the observers (like an audience) but also heralds of the action. Yet they can also add depth, stir up conflict and make things happen. It is no accident that Anderson especially becomes like he does and it is no accident either that Sherlock explains to Anderson (rather than Watson) what happened to him. Anderson (and his new gang) are us. Fans devising explanations, fans imagining all sorts of crazy stuff while sitting around in Deer Stalker hats and speculating about the return, just like they did about 100 years ago:

Anderson and the  Sherlock fans work out how he did it. Or not.

Anderson and the Sherlock fans work out how he did it. Or not.

What else, these characters are also foils to demonstrate Sherlock’s cleverness, while his enemies and friend/s are there to show how wrong he can be. Moriarty and now Magnussen look like they beat Sherlock, until Sherlock wins, or almost wins (?). Yet the price for winning, for solving the crime puzzle, is high.

So there you go. There is a heap more to say and think about but this has suddenly become a long read. And I haven’t even mentioned the comedy! And his parents! Anyway thanks for reading and maybe rethinking Sherlock.

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The Hobbit: Consolations of Structure & Dreaming

Structure and Imagination

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug was mostly a triumph of restructuring and knowing what to do with a story once it’s been written. Tolkien followed a dream when he began inventing a world in between stints in the trenches of WWI, and it was one that was continually reshaped over his entire life and now the life of his son. And when he began he had mostly little idea where it was going and which bits were significant and which wouldn’t be later. He regarded The Hobbit and LoTR as side projects to his real work of Middle Earth’s mythology and there were decades between them. LoTR especially was not what the publisher demanded or expected after The Hobbit.

Yes. Except where the film differs from the book.

Yes. Except where the film differs from the book.

As I’ve said previously the films are not the book. Mostly this is a good thing. I know it is a kind of blasphemy, but there is no way purists would’ve watched/liked the film/s if they had followed the novel. Because it wasn’t meant for funky post-modern you, or for film. Film can’t convey the nuance, history and spirituality of the books and myths behind the stories. Tolkien knew this. And he sold the film rights anyway (for reasons).


I got mostly what I wanted from the film. Each of the Dwarves became individuated in ways that never did happen in the book. I’m so happy Bombur didn’t become the fool of the wood…that was left to Bofur in Laketown. The narration is still absent (yay). Events progressed more evenly, with more immediacy and the Necromancer was revealed for who he was, with Radagast getting more of a showing.

I missed the talking birds and it felt like there wasn’t enough time in Mirkwood or with Beorn or even with Gandalf because this was actually more of a chase sequence film, rather than a meandering quest. While more Beorn would’ve been good I’m ok with his introduction being different. The relationship between the Orcs and Sauron was more obvious, while the relationship of Bilbo to the ring was made more taut and more risky, but he lost a lot of the dialogue (mostly the nonsense poetry which is ok) and while he saved the Dwarves repeatedly Bilbo never quite felt central until talking to the Dragon. Bits of the story problematic for modern audiences were abandoned and the history was made a little clearer with the reset in Bree (yes I spotted you in that scene Peter Jackson). 

I do appreciate that what Jackson and the other screen writers gave the Hobbit was a structure with echoes and clearer relationships to LoTR and The Silmarillion. This structure was necessarily different to the one Tolkien had. Because he was writing before the second wave of feminism, before he knew exactly how his mythology would develop and even before he envisaged sequels.

Jackson et al had the luxury of accessing all Tolkien’s stories, his vision, and the vision of Alan Lee and John Howe. And a bucketload of money and technology, combined with a contemporary sensibility. So they always knew the destination, and could create a structure to suit it, as well as the filmic medium and modern expectations about pacing, narration and ahem, women. Speaking of which, I liked that Bard had a family (including daughters, even though they spent a lot of time screaming). I liked that Kili had a mother (referred to but absent but still) and finally…

Tauriel (wasn’t useless!)

The film-makers are using the (probably 100% peak) familiarity with LoTR by setting up relationships to mirror/speak to the later ones (that were conveniently filmed earlier). Aiden Turner steals more than one heart with the sad eyes, the grin and enthusiasm. It’s so deliberate, formulaic even, and so new to the story, but somehow it works. Amid the action and arguing Kili is the contemplative and relational centre of the expedition and Fili is his backup. For the Elves, Tauriel performs the same function. She too is an actioneer, and like Kili, also subject to obligations to her kin.

However, Tauriel is enmeshed in a world that has her king not consider her good enough for his son, because she is a Sylvan elf, even though she is his equal as a warrior, hunter and diplomat. As seemingly matched as Legolas and Tauriel are though, it’s good that his attention was spurned. Legolas may bolster her pride, after her Tauriel was stung by Thranduil, but she’ wasn’t into him. While Legolas is the son of a king and all, she has the power here.

So I desperately didn’t want Tauriel to be just a ‘love interest’ in the film.  And while she fulfils some aspects of this role, she is more than that. She is outspoken, with a responsible job and furthermore is an important catalyst for change in the insular Greenwood, just as the arrival of Thorin and Co are. Tauriel is also the one who sees the bigger picture. She argues that the world they defend is larger than their bit of the forest. She brings the fight from the Elves to the evil outside their world and she is awesome at it.

An Elf. Not a 'she-Elf' FFS!

An Elf. Not a ‘she-Elf’ FFS!

What I hated and I mean HATED was that Tauriel was called a ‘she-Elf’. No, no, no. I understand it was meant as an insult from the Orc/Goblin and her people didn’t go around saying ‘she-Elf’…but being female is not an insult. And shouldn’t ever be construed as one. We know better. I don’t care if it’s coming from an ostensibly ‘evil’ being. Tolkien himself conveyed that kind of evil better – with LoTR’s Wormtongue who played on constructs of femininity without ever resorting to calling Eowyn a ‘she-Rohirrim’.

Such an insult construes femaleness as outside ‘normal’ identity. It means in this world, Elf means male. And it therefore leaves much of the audience outside as well. I am suddenly wondering if I’m a ‘she-Watcher’ or a ‘she-Reader’. And I don’t want to woken from the dream in the middle of the effing film. I want to be inside it and until this moment I was inside it.

It also means that there’s a chance kids who sat behind me in the cinema will go out and when they want to insult a person, it will be “you’re nothing but a ‘she-physicist’”, or a ‘she-Italian’ or something else just as ridiculous as it is misogynist.

Pretty much the heart of this film.

Pretty much the heart of this film.

Yet I also loved the idea that while the story mirrored something of Luthien/Beren and Aragorn/Arwen, it was not love between human and elf, but elf and dwarf that was hinted at. This was never in any of the stories I’m aware of, but I think it is a kind of evolution of thought about seeing ‘same’ where once individuals and groups only saw ‘other’. It also gives more impetus to Legolas’ development regarding Dwarves and his  later relationship with Gimli more interesting. And I imagine, in the next instalment, it will make events even more bitter-sweet. 

However, I wanted more incidental female characters. Again, given all the changes, how about the more than one or two occasional background characters being female, say in Bree or in the Greenwood or Laketown? I mean any society should be about 50% female right, even if they aren’t crucial to any particular story happening in it? Maybe this will be ameliorated in the final instalment?


So that was the film. It was good enough that I want to see it again at the cinema. And good enough for me to want the next instalment to be a further improvement.

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Doctor Who: Loose Ends & Story Strands

Here are some first and maybe second thoughts and feelings about The Time of the Doctor, and also about story telling. 

So what this story gave us is a chance to see a time travelling companion juxtaposed an aging Doctor staying in one place, for a long time. It was the opposite perspective from the usual one where the Doctor runs away from his aging or former companions. This Timelord dying of a cranky old age at the end of his long life, where each saved life was a victory was a way to give him insights as he was about to regenerate.

As a plot device it took me a while to find it and it was interesting to see time truly catching up with ‘an ageless god who insists on the face of a twelve-year old’ as River once noted. It also gave a plausible explanation for the show not ending with the Doctor’s death(-ish).

Did I say Matt Smith is amazing? He is amazing. Even under prosthetic make up and wigs and bald. A pity about all that really, but at least the story addressed it head on (so to speak) rather than cop criticism over wigs. Speaking of which we all know Karen Gillan was also wearing a wig too right? Are we wigging out?

Too many ideas. And not enough ideas.

Too many: What I mean is too many things were happening at once. It was about Gallifrey, Daleks, and Cyberwhatsits, it was about the Silents, it was about the role of the Papal Mainframe, it was about the crack of doom and River, it was about Christmas, and time, and truth and war and aging and dying.

Yet there are not enough ideas: recently Doctor Who has mainly been about how Clara’s tears are magic.

Clara’s tears seem to solve all problems when combined with special pleading. Don’t explode the Moment (cos tears), get Gallifrey to help (cos tears), dissolve the Great Intelligence (cos tears), realise she is Dalek and explode the asylum (while sobbing). Amy had gumption, she made a sonic probe and learned how to use a sword (twice) and used violence and death to solve problems. Donna would argue to get her way and stop the Doctor from doing stuff. Rose would pout yes, but then she would motivate others to problem solve (Mickey with the truck, the crew of the base). Martha would use her medical and scientific skills.

It would be nice to see Clara grow or change as a result of her special knowledge of the Doctor (having been inside his consciousness/life/tomb thingy). There are glimpses, especially in her interactions with the Tardis. But it’s interesting that Smith’s Doctor treats Clara more like a child than he ever did Amy, whom he first properly met as a child and witnessed growing up. Please, please let Clara develop into someone who can do more than cry, plead and occasionally die.

Fools and liars and family

Clara was also treated badly or made to look bad in this story. Fool her once. Shame on her. Fool her twice shame on you. Fool her again, shame on us all. Compared to the Doctor leaving Amy and Rory with their car and new home, this was mean. And she was portrayed as almost entirely self-absorbed and superficial: while the Doctor is defending an entire world and dying she is worried about a turkey and what he looks like.

I get that it’s the Christmas Special, but why shoehorn a town called Christmas into the story? Or why shoehorn Clara’s lame family in, especially since they’ve barely rated a mention before? They’re not like Rose’s family, who were always a part of Rose’s domestic back story. In fact Clara’s back story feels like a series of vignettes of a character trying different things. It could be a clever metaphor for her split identities in saving the Doctor. But feels less real than Amy’s attempted careers and more like a series of portraits of a life, like the pictures in the Under Gallery.

This is in contrast to the families of Rose, Martha and Donna, who always felt present in their lives both in and out of the Tardis, especially when they’re orbiting living suns or black holes. Always, Rose and Martha’s distance from home and family when facing death was present to them. Yet this never occurs to Clara. Does Clara care she could die and her father never know where, or when or why or how? If Martha is about to die she calls her mother. Before Clara jumps into ‘the light’ she doesn’t call her Dad. Is this about the style and focus of RTD vs Moffat or something else? 

And about the sending her home thing. Clara’s not thinking, like Donna did, that she may never see her grandparent again, but only that somehow the Doctor has betrayed her by sending her back to save her life (just like he did to Rose a few times). 

Back to Clara’s family. As incidental to the story and (apparently to Clara) the only redeeming feature is at least the grandmother is intriguing. Could she be a forlorn might-have-been companion? Or a victim of a weeping angel? Or Christmas Special Madge’s relative, given that Victorian London Governess Clara had a charge called Digby and Madge had either a brother or brother-in-law called Digby?

The why of stuff

Why with the entire hologram stuff and the nakedness? The only point is the Doctor’s conversation with the Sister about his body, which he has been ‘rocking for centuries’, while remaining youthful. To contrast this to his later aging, which again felt like a bit of a ploy to make Peter Capaldi look younger (a bit), except it was undermined by the process of regeneration itself, which reset Smith’s Doctor before he changed (so very suddenly).

Info Dumps

Remember when I warned about info dumps and crowding plot moments? In a couple of seconds the Doctor and Tasha Lem manage to reveal the entire point of the Amelia/Amy/Melody story arc, regarding the Papal Mainframe, the exploding Tardis, the cracks in time, the Silents, Madam Kovarian and River Song. Thanks for that. However, it all could have been so much more satisfying, if say Amy and Rory had learnt this too. Then there would’ve been an emotional pay off, rather than the rueful reaction of Clara. I get that life is not like that (the Weeping Angels demonstrated that in the first episode in which they appeared), but still.

All this information was crammed in so it felt like it was two episodes in one. Or an episode from a couple of seasons ago, crammed into the final episode for this year. So the Silents were confessors. Ok, makes sense, but why are they electrical and fighty? So Kovarian was the leader of a renegade group from the Church. Ok. Nice to know but it meant nothing to Clara. If River had been there, that would’ve been different. Imagine an angry River, even Library Projection River, having a go at the institution that defined her life or leading an army of Silents in a war to save the Doctor. Now that would’ve been something to see.

More please? 

Anyway, more Lem would’ve been good. She was under utilised, when she is apparently quite important. Pity we’d all never heard of her before, except for the mention of her Church. And why is she a psychopath? Why can she fly the Tardis? I get she is ‘like’ Clara, in that she can die and then fight off a nano-Dalek possessing her dead body…but what then?

The how of the siege wasn’t clear, while the war for Christmas was rushed. Viewers didn’t understand it wasn’t just the Doctor and a backwoodsy town defending themselves, but the Mother Superious and her church/army as well.

More about Trenzalore. More of the Truth field. Why wasn’t ‘the oldest question’ asked by one of the locals first? Like hello there, who are you? Oops, the Doctor must answer, Gallifrey appears and all hell…

More could have been made of this...

More could have been made of this…

What of the Church? What happens now with Gallifrey? 

More Clara DOING something other than crying or worrying about turkey. Although at least she got everyone out-of-the-way when he began regenerating. Oh, and served the cooked turkey.

Sources of confusion

It took me a while to work out the drawings. They are by the kids of the town. As the town’s Geppeto in the middle of a siege, the Doctor tells them his stories and they give him pictures. But why?

When writers and directors do something like this I want it to mean something. If they do draw our attention to a thing, by continually showing it in a story it gathers significance, just by being noticed. And I noticed. But the pictures and their significance weren’t alluded to, or explained, or even acknowledged. Grrr.



Speaking of significance what about the focus on the Grandmother’s ring, and on the ring on Amy’s hand?

Ok, so Lem didn’t want the Doctor to take technology to the planet…but he had his sonic screwdriver with him?

Too much of the dialogue was difficult to understand because they were talking so fast. What did Clara say her name was? After the regeneration I thought the Doctor said ‘Guinness’ instead of ‘kidneys’ (weird) and I had to go back to work out the joke about the colour. Say what you will about Tennant’s regeneration into Smith but at least the enunciation was clear from everyone involved.


Awesome equals everything Matt Smith said in his soliloquies and Clara’s speech to Gallifrey, (although why didn’t she think of that the first visit)? Interesting to note it was a kind of paean of the actor to the writer at the end as well, with Smith saying ‘he wasn’t forgetting one line of this’. Except it was written by the writer for the actor to say. Nice one. In fact almost everything Smith said and did embodied gravitas and humour, sincerity and his usual awkward cheekiness as the Doctor. Loved the dancing.

But he is gone. So soon but no, not forgotten.



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Ten-ish books that stayed with me…

Yet another list thing is going around and I’ll do my bit by listing 10-ish books that have stayed with me in some way, but only because I should be thesising or something. So here goes:

1) Little Match Girl. First story I ever read by myself. It was in the school library. 

2) Wind in the Willows. Chapters stay with me rather than the entire book. Parts of this are the nearest thing to a poetic sense of the numinous as any writer has ever aspired to in a novel. And I won’t hear otherwise.

3) Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Theology, history, writing and publishing. Conspiracy theories. Italian and South American politics, secret societies, academia, a murder mystery and psychoanalysis, narrated through a detached post modern reflexivity all wrapped into one very self-indulgent romp you need an arts degree to get through. Also was on the reading list for my arts degree. It remains my go to re-read.

4) Lord of the Rings. I’ve heard the arguments about the depiction of women, and about the archaic language. I know all of that. But still. Lord of the Rings and in fact all of them, including the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales made high school bearable.

Alan Lee's version of Minas Tirith.

Alan Lee’s version of Minas Tirith.

5) Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love. Unputdownable and apparently now a bit hard to find but worth it if you do. A book about books, authorship and love. In some ways tonally reminiscent of the Shadow of the Wind, which suddenly is also on this list. How did that happen?

6) China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. More phantasmagorical than fantasy, fuelled by a certain predilection for the style of a Psychedelic Poe in an alternate world peopled with the half-familiar and utterly Other. It took me a year to read, but it’s haunted me ever since.

7) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I’d heard the radio plays (on repeat) before I read the book/s. For all the flaws its influence is with me still. 

8) Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska. Modjeska’s novel is a revelation – if ever you want to interrogate what you write as you write it, this is the template.

9) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Took two attempts to read this. First time I didn’t think it was in English and didn’t get past the first few pages. The second time I realised it wasn’t in English, but it still made sense. Honourable mention to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

10) To the Wild Sky by Ivan Southall and the sequel A City out of Sight, but Ash Road is good too. High tension and lives at stake stuff. If you want to write for young adults you could do a lot worse than imitate Southall. While I’m at it the golden age of Australian young adult authors rocked, what with  The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson and the works of Colin Thiele and Victor Kelleher. From the UK The Owl Service by Alan Garner left an impression as did short stories by US writer Robert Silverberg, but I can’t recall the titles. So I need a separate list for young adult/youth literature.

This is my question: can you be considered well read if you know the stories but haven’t read the books? How many of those lists of 100 books you must read have you looked at and gone, yeah, I know the story because of the mime/film/play/puppet show/animation/TV series/musical/interpretative dance/ etc? Before high rates of literacy people knew stories. That was the bit that mattered. Do we need to read Dickens to know Oliver Twist? Is a film of a musical version of a gigantic novel adequate to know Les Miserables

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